I’m very picky these days about crime fiction, because so much of it revolves around the plot of a raped and murdered woman. In the worst of these stories, the audience is encouraged to participate in the sadomasochistic pleasure of the killer. Even in the best, it’s worth examining our cultural fixation on these stories, and the conflation of sex with violence in various aspects of real life.
Contains spoilers, as usual.
Happy Valley is a British limited crime series with two seasons of six episodes each — a novelistic approach rather than episodic a la The Bill or CSI. The viewer must watch it from beginning to end in the right order to get the full impact. Like many others, the plot revolves around the rape of an offscreen young woman and her subsequent suicide; the onscreen murder of a beautiful young police officer and the abduction; rape and drugging of yet another young white woman. Exactly the sort of thing I’ve learned to avoid, but for a few differences:
First, Happy Valley stars Sarah Lancashire as police sergeant and main character Catherine Cawood. I feel I’ve grown up with Sarah Lancashire because she was playing the young bimbo Racquel in Coronation Street back when I lived in NZ, with Coro playing three evenings a week in a Coro fanatic household. Lancashire was a bit wasted in that, so I was pleased to see she went from strength to strength after leaving Coronation Street. If Sarah Lancashire chooses to do something, there’s something worthy in the story.
Second, Happy Valley is written by a middle-aged woman, born 1963. Not by a writing team, either, though every writer has help at some level. Like Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad (who eventually got a writing room), this is one woman’s singular vision and that made it less likely producers and writers with more status had come in and mucked with it.
I was very interested to see what Sally Wainwright had done with the stale old trope of dead girls. Wainwright is a native of Yorkshire herself, so I expected her to get the storyworld right. She has worked as a bus driver in a town like this. She knows it.
In short, this crime show is different from the rest. Happy Valley is what stories look like when women are afforded the opportunity to write stories for and about women. Though I have no interest in writing adult crime fiction myself, there are writer tricks to take away from this crime, drama genre blend.
CHARACTERISATION OF CATHERINE
In some ways, Catherine is no different from many, many cops we’ve seen on screen before. She’s Jimmy McNulty from The Wire — changed by the dangers of the job into someone who has been affected by a cognitive shift something like The Overview Effect. Like an astronaut who has seen Earth’s vulnerability from the distance of a space shuttle, these cops have seen death itself. As a consequence, they have no time for the hierarchical bullshit that goes down among the police department and affiliated departments (in Catherine’s case, with the corrupt councillor, buying himself leeway to use hard drugs). Like McNulty, Catherine has little respect for her superiors at work — made worse by the fact she used to be a detective herself nine years earlier.
Sergeant Catherine Cahill is also typically flawed in her personal relationships. This, we assume, is partly to do with the hard shell she’s had to develop as part of the job. This shell was cemented with the death of her daughter, nine years ago, when job and family collided in the most terrible way.
Psychological weakness: Catherine is prone to obsession. She can’t draw a line between job and personal life, but this happened to her. She didn’t exactly choose it. The audience understands this clearly and we empathise. This, too, is a classic cop show weakness.
Moral weakness: Catherine twists the balls of a young man who may or may not have joked about her young, dead colleague. She sexually assaults him, in other words. She breaks into a house illegally. As she says to her sister, this doesn’t make it legal just because she’s a copper. To get to the truth she changes the story a little bit (we surmise), with the official report saying Ashley’s property looks like it’s been broken into. It had, sure, but also by Catherine herself. Is this a moral weakness? No, the audience sees it as a strength. The writer made sure to put us in audience superior position. We not only forgive Catherine for breaking the rules; we are rooting for her to break them further. She comes so close to saving the young woman early in the season. Audiences also love a trickster. The takeaway point here: If you want to create a hero who breaks the rules, it’s a good idea to show the audience more than you’re showing the character. I’ve written much more about empathy in this post, but as these tricks relate specifically to Catherine:
- Catherine is an underdog. As she tells her sister, she gets to do all the cleaning up, but is not let into the big picture. This makes her job harder. We see enough of her bosses to know that they’re okay people but not as dedicated as she is. Catherine knows people. She remembers petty criminals from years back. The men she works under have no clue what’s going on at the street level. Scenes such as the one with the councillor refusing a breath test show how abuse is an everyday part of the job, compounded when her boss suggests she drop it, which is completely at odds with Catherine’s morality. Catherine holds people accountable. An underdog hero doesn’t start out wanting to save the world from evil — that would be a superhero — underdogs start the story responding to some strife, of which they are the victim. At some point in the story there will have to be a switch in attitude, though, when they become proactive rather than reactive. This switch happens very early in the series as Catherine learns from her ex-husband journalist that Tommy Lee Royce is out.
- Catherine’s admirable qualities are drip fed to us. This makes us feel like we’re slowly getting to know her, and she’s better even than we thought. For this, the writers keep us in audience inferior position. We’re shown situations and left to fill in the blanks. For instance, we don’t know the journalist she meets in the street is her ex-husband, but when we’re shown they have an ‘amicable’ relationship, this shows emotional maturity. We learn the backstory of Catherine’s daughter and how she took on the baby despite losing the rest of her family, because it was the right thing to do. It is revealed only much later that she used to be a detective, but stood down to sergeant to focus more on family — an attribute many women will relate to. She cares about the sister’s friend at the mission and tracks her down, making sure she’s not trying to escape from domestic abuse. In this she’s like a dog with a bone. Tenacious. We like tenacious people who buckle down and do their jobs, especially if people’s lives are on the line.
- At the same time, Catherine is no Mary Sue, because Catherine’s weaknesses are also drip fed to us; the way she takes her inner turmoil out on her grandson and son. We are not shown the weaknesses until we’ve been given a reason for the weakness. This is important when creating a sympathetic character.
- Catherine is smart but not a Sherlockian genius. This is the Goldilocks zone for likeability. “Are we being thick?” asks her sister in the kitchen, piecing together what the audience already knows. This scene is a remarkably adept masterclass in realism, by the way. “The first thing you learn as a copper is don’t make assumptions.” Catherine is high mimetic on Northrop Frye’s hierarchy of heroes. She’s just a bit stronger and smarter than most of us.
- Catherine’s achievements are hard-won. She also doesn’t care about them. She’s no brown-noser. (Why do we hate brown-nosers? Because they sell their own morality upstream whenever they see a short-term personal advantage.)
- Catherine is the ultimate in self-sacrifice for the greater good, coming face-to-face with death. The writers put her in physical danger in the harrowing scenes of episode four, but this is followed by a spiritual death in the final two episodes in which she resumes smoking cigarettes, falls into depression and is unpleasant to her family.
- Catherine only pushes back as hard as she herself has been pushed. She’s loyal. She does throw in her stripes, literally, then gets right back on the job to save the day.
- Catherine is a good mediator. We love good mediators. If you’re writing a hero police officer and you’re not showing the audience their mediation skills, you’re missing an opportunity, perhaps. We see Catherine in mediation, with her grandson’s school principal, and in the opening playground scene. We also see how she uses her humanity to open up on these occasions.
- Something extra: This is where a middle-aged mother as writer really stands out — Catherine is absolutely exhausted by her various duties of care. When the young officer becomes bamboozled by the bully councilman, Catherine gives her a lecture on being strong in future. She’s just had to go in and do someone else’s job, because she’s too young to do it, frankly. “I’m not your mother,” Catherine says, brutally, fatally. We really want Catherine to back down as the young woman leaves her office. We really want her to say, “You’re not really shit at your job.” At the same time, we understand that Catherine simply does not have shoulders wide enough to be everybody’s mother. The exhausting work of nurture is something any lead parent can relate to, whether this is the mother or the father; in our society, it’s mostly the mother, and with elderly parents it’s usually the daughter. It’s exhausting and mostly thankless. And if you happen to be good at it, you’ll be unduly called upon at work as well as at home. Overall, I suspect Catherine’s inability to parent her young charges at work is an attribute more empathetic to women than to men. Helen Garner created a similar dynamic in her novel The Spare Room, and has said in interviews that men have responded completely differently from women to the text, with far less empathy towards the woman who is irritated by her caring responsibilities.
CATHERINE’S BATTLE PHASE AND SELF-REVELATION
The battle phase of a story can encompass various distinct stages. Catherine is taken to the brink of death, first physically, next psychically. But we pretty much know she’s going to pull through, right? Not just because we’ve seen her dogged determination, and because we know she’s been this low before, but because we’ve been primed to expect this from our fictional heroes:
The degeneration plot: A character changes for the worse from a protagonist who was at one time sympathetic and full of ambition to some crucial loss which results in their utter disillusionment. They then have to choose between picking up the threads of their life and starting over again or giving up their goals and ambitions altogether. If they choose the former course we have what may be termed the resignation plot. But since I only know of one such plot: Uncle Vanya. Chekhov seemed obsessed with how a character can live after all their hopes, dreams and goals have been shattered.
That’s a quote from Norman Friedman, who made a comprehensive typology of plot in the mid 20th century. Friedman might call season one of Happy Valley a ‘degeneration plot’, in which an attractive main character changes for the worse after a major crisis. Walter White is another example of that, though Catherine and Walt live on different sides of the law.
Happy Valley is a story about family as much as it is about detective work set in and around a police station.
Because Happy Valley is a screen production and not a novel, sister and confidante Clare is a vital character. It is through Catherine’s conversations with Clare that we get to understand her motivations: Why she is sleeping with her ex-husband; why she’s interested in pursuing Tommy Lee Royce, and what she hopes to achieve. We also get backstory — in one sentence we understand that Catherine has taken Clare in to live with her partly because Clare lives with alcohol addiction. Clare knows Catherine better than anyone, and Clare is able to sum up Catherine for us, cluing us into her obsessive, driven nature in which her mental health is affected. Clare is also useful because she does volunteer work at The Mission, which puts her right inside another, related subculture of the town, rubbing shoulders with people fresh out of prison. This is an important advantage in a story where the characters are a topiary of interrelationships — small towns are good for this — everyone knows everyone, and Catherine demonstrates her interpersonal expertise over and over to demonstrate this. A plot like this one does rely on the audience truly believing that everyone knows everyone in this town.
The Men Of Happy Valley
The men of Happy Valley form a hierarchy of awful to not awful, but still not great. Together, this character ensemble says something important about the way we, as a society, sit back and let things happen. I believe this relates back to the title. It’s not simply an ironic title. I mean, it’s that, too. This valley does not seem happy. It’s also about how certain people think everything is fine, and they’re happy to sit back and watch awful things play out before them.
At the top of that chain (or the bottom) we have Tommy Lee Royce, who looms in women’s lives as a (for most of us) hypothetical rapist and murderer — the bogeyman from scary fairytales; the person who makes us lock our doors and walk with keys between our fingers. Tommy Lee Royce borders on a horror trope. In horror, the monster just will not die. They rise from the dead time and again; Tommy loses three litres of blood, probably needs stitches, yet here he is, walking around, strong enough to manage a child abduction. Tommy is not punished with death. That’s what he begs for in the end, but there are fates worse than death and Catherine is determined to follow through. (Also, there’s series two to come.)
Ashley Cowgill is one rung down — Ashley is able to dehumanise a young woman to the point he’s happy to see her murdered. In bad company, Ashley comes to the party. He is punished with death.
Lewis Whippey is part of this culture of dehumanisation, but is ultimately unable to participate in it fully, horrified by the rape. Nor does he have the power to stand against it, unwilling to take any personal hit to make the world a better place. Ashley is smaller and younger and less criminally experienced. These men, too, are familiar.
Kevin Weatherill — had his family life panned out differently — could easily have been drawn into the incel movement, feeling that life has been unkind to him. His wife, despite living with MS, does not feel that way because unlike Kevin, she hasn’t been conditioned into entitlement.
Nevison Gallagher is the flip side of Kevin. Nev has no reason to examine his masculinity because he has everything a man is praised for. He’s rich and the head of a successful business, with a stable family and a beautiful home. He is also emotionally underdeveloped compared to his wife Helen; he has spent his entire life focusing on work. Even his young adult daughter has more compassion for others than he does. Nev has never been rewarded for showing empathy; it’s no surprise he has very little of it. He has been richly rewarded for his business ruthlessness, in fact.
Daniel Cahill, Catherine’s estranged son, is eventually revealed to be psychologically wounded from the aftermath of his sister’s rape and murder. He feels unappreciated, and Catherine has lashed out. We are given enough of his backstory to understand why he might feel rejected. He reminds his mother that dead Becky was not perfect. Then he demonstrates his extra layer of misogyny, which he has plucked from the water we’re all swimming in: that his sister was complicit in her own downfall. “She was asking for it,” he says, multiple times, knowing how that upsets Catherine, but also choosing to believe it himself. This is exactly the attitude Catherine would have been battling against when she first joined the police force, and which hasn’t gone away yet.
Richard Cahill is one of the more empathetic men of Happy Valley, though hapless. He’s moved on to a new relationship with a woman significantly younger, sort of, and can’t accept his grandson without Catherine’s help. The younger, subsequent partner is nevertheless a match for his emotional maturity, because he won’t grow up. Now Catherine remains Richard’s emotional rock and a bit of a mother figure when it suits him. We know this has never been a give and take relationship, emotionally. By the end of season one Catherine has realised this anew, and rejects Richard’s offers of emotional support, which he achieves via sex. He doesn’t know how else to do it. A beautiful example of mansplaining is written into the script when Richard finally takes Catherine’s advice to write about the drug crisis in the valley. Excited at everything he has just learnt from a few days of research, he calls Catherine while she’s working at her own job to tell her all about it. From his side, he just wants someone to talk to, but Catherine responds curtly; she is overfamiliar with the dynamic in which a woman is ignored, and then a man swoops in, runs with her idea and — we all know — it will be Richard’s name on the credit. Richard proves he hasn’t been listening, or he hasn’t respected Catherine’s expertise. So often, ‘good men’ only start to listen — really listen — to women once they’re in the middle of their own personal crisis. For Richard, it’s the crisis of losing his job.
The male colleagues at the police station are another variety of people you’d likely find in a workplace. The most relatable (and frustrating) is the boss who is an okay person but isn’t especially good at getting the job done. He’s ‘nice’. But sometimes switches to ‘boss mode’ when challenged, and then you realise he’s not so nice after all.
These men are all very different from each other, but is any single one of them truly ‘good’?
I’m just going to throw this out there because, as far as provocative truth bombs go, it’s been ticking away for too long.
The universal male decency we keep hearing about is largely a myth.
Sure, most men might not be bad. But it takes more than ‘not being bad’ to be ‘actually good’.
No doubt the fictional Richard, Daniel, and even Kevin, would consider themselves decent men. But what are they standing against? What is it they’re actually doing to make the world a better place for those with less privilege, or even to just to stop it from sliding into awfulness?
Apparently all it takes to be considered a ‘decent bloke’ is to take an each way bet at doing nothing — nothing to perpetuate oppression, and nothing to stop it.
This attitude, that being NOT SEXIST is the same as being ANTI-SEXIST is common to all forms of bigotry:
I haven’t been able to muster much optimism for what feels like forever, so a friend asked if I’m at least heartened by the mainstream noise over child detention. The answer is “not really.” I thought for a while about why I feel that way, and I think it comes down to the mistaken feeling (mostly white) people seem to have that not-bigotry is the same thing as anti-bigotry. See, I think that as long as those two things are getting confused, we’re going to continue to see the stage set for more and more drastic abuse, because it lets dehumanization slip by. Not-bigotry is having POC friends. It’s putting up signs that “all are welcome here.” It’s believing that your beliefs alone are part of a multigenerational groundswell that will make bigotry fade because of population math. Anti-bigotry is, among other things, acknowledging targeted oppression. Realizing that burying the who and why of those targeted allows the conversation to ignore underlying and systemic issues, which guarantees further abuse. That, I think, is why so many people who see themselves as progressive are (mostly unknowingly) arguing against children in cages but accepting families in cages as a reasonable solution. I tweeted recently that when the conversation moved into the national dialogue, it went from “brown children” to “children.” Why is the latter more effective in inspiring outrage? Who made the choice to drop the specificity? People are feeling like there’s a moment here, and it’s terrifying to me that the accepted “progressive” narrative is whitewashed; it affirms that POC need to be viewed non-racially to garner sympathy. The obsession with Trump, his family, and his administration as the be-all, end-all of these atrocities is another variable: it says to me that public derision for a singular figure also needs to be present to generate this outcry.
THE BEAUTIFUL CIRCULAR ENDING
As Happy Valley opens in episode one, Catherine Cawood grabs a fire extinguisher from a corner shop and marches towards a young man high on skunk, perched on play equipment threatening to set himself on fire. There’s gallows humour in this scene. He isn’t dangerous — he is pathetic. We learn later via dialogue that Catherine had to spray him because he had no idea how close he was to lighting himself up. This scene is also an excellent way for the audience to get to know Catherine quickly; not only do we see her cool, collected and experienced; she tries to talk the young man down by giving him a snapshot of her own life. “My name’s Catherine Cawood, I’m forty-seven, divorced, my daughter’s dead and my son won’t talk to me.” (I’m paraphrasing, but it’s that memorable.)
It’s easy to forget that scene, and we’re almost meant to. But we are reminded of it later in episode six. Another young man — or possibly the very same one — is on the same playground, convinced after smoking weed while watching Peter Pan that he is surrounded by crocodiles. Catherine is exhausted. She’s had a near-death experience by this stage, and when she learns he ‘might skin his knees if he falls off’, she slams the phone down. She walks out. She can’t be dealing with this inconsequential crap. That’s the takeaway point for the audience, but there’s another reason for this seemingly unrelated scene.
Because when we get to the penultimate scene of the season, in which Tommy Lee Royce tries to set himself on fire along with his eight-year-old son, it’s suddenly clear why we saw these earlier scenes with the young man on the playground. There are villains and then there are Villains. The everyday job of a copper in Happy Valley is dealing with drug addicts who are themselves victims in a way. By juxtaposing the young man on the playground (child’s play, literally) with the evil of Tommy Lee Royce, we see the distinction that Catherine has always made — this young man who raped her daughter is not like the others. The writers reminded us subtly of the opening playground scene by showing us another very similar right before the showdown on the boat. The first time I watched this series I didn’t even notice what had been done — a perfectly circular series ending. Two young men threatening to set themselves on fire, but under completely different circumstances. It doesn’t even feel like repetition, partly because the first time Catherine sprayed a man with foam happened off-stage. Now we get to see her do it for Real. It feels poetic and cathartic both.
It’s worth noting, too, that stories about women are more likely to be circular in shape than stories about men, which are linear; a hero goes on a journey, starting in one place, ending in another. But Catherine never leaves town. This is a Robinsonnade in which the hero stays ‘on her island’ to fight evil on the home front.
WEAKNESSES OF HAPPY VALLEY
I remain a little unconvinced on several points, partly to do with the supporting actors, I suspect.
- Though I accept the cool reserve of certain English classes, I don’t believe the Gallaghers’ muted reactions to their daughter’s kidnapping. There’s something to be said for keeping tears off ‘the page’ — if the character cries, the audience does not. We do see the PTSD of Catherine, with flashes of her dead daughter in the back seat, and the high-pitched fainting precursor, and the muted ambient talking all around her as she copes with terrible news. These editing effects afford believable insight into her psychology. But these tricks are not utilised with the other characters, because they are not the main characters. This is a really hard balancing act, and there may be a cultural difference in my reaction. (I’m not British.)
- I accept that the Cahill household was in chaos at the time of Ryan’s abduction by Tommy, but I didn’t really buy that two eight-year-old boys would be given free reign until five o’clock in the afternoon. I’d believe this of the eighties, or of children with really compromised caregivers, but that’s certainly not the culture where I live. Eight is about two to four years too early for that level of freedom.